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Osage Nation, Indian Territory Early 1880s
Lorelei Russell halted her strawberry roan gelding in the copse of trees overlooking Burgess Ranch and Stage Station. A well-manicured two-story clapboard house, a stage station, three wooden sheds and an oversize barn sat in the lush valley. The spring sunset cast filtered light and shadows in the trees, giving the Osage Hills a fanciful quality.
Dismounting, Lorelei patted her horse, Drifter, affectionately then received a nudge from him on her elbow in response. Hiking off, she reread the note she'd received from Anthony Rogers, foreman at Burgess Ranch.
She had meant to stop by earlier in the day, but she and her father had been busy unloading the delivery wagon that had arrived at their trading post and ferry on Winding River. Then she had made a delivery to a homebound customer before stopping by to see Anthony.
Lorelei had hoped to return home by dark, but Russell's Trading Post was ten miles south of the station on the stagecoach route. Although the territory had become a refuge for outlaws that holed up in thickly timbered hills and rocky gorges, Lorelei had lived the last decade of her twenty-three years in the area. Her father, a former military officer, had made certain she could take care of herself. She was very familiar with the tree-choked hillsides of the Osage reservation and she could protect herself with a variety of weapons.
Her wandering thoughts trailed off when she glanced at Anthony's note again. The honest truth was she had procrastinated in stopping by to see Anthony. He had been courting her for over three months but her feelings for him hadn't progressed past the friendship stage. Unfortunately, she had the impression that Anthony had developed the kind of affection for her that she couldn't return. It wasn't that he wasn't attractive, with his sandy-blond hair, thick-lashed blue eyes and lean physique. He just wasn't
She sighed heavily. She wasn't sure what love was, but she didn't think this was it.
"Thank goodness you're here." Anthony suddenly appeared from the deepening shadows to envelop her in a hug. "I was getting worried, sweetheart."
"Papa and I have been busy with inventory and customers," she explained as she backed from his embrace.
He nodded and smiled. "I should have come to the trading post since we're running low on a few supplies, but I've had dozens of last-minute chores to wrap up here."
"Last-minute?" she repeated curiously.
He reached out to trail his forefinger over her cheek. "I have a confession, Lori," he murmured as he stared deeply into her eyes. "Every hour I've spent with you leaves me wanting to spend even more."
Lori smiled weakly, but she didn't have the heart to lead Tony on by saying that she felt the same. When he clutched both of her hands in his own, she tensed. He looked so serious, almost impatient to spew out the words she didn't want to hear.
To her dismay, he went down on one knee and stared up at her with a hopeful smile. "I'm in love with you, Lori. I want you to marry me and come away with me so we can make a clean break and a fresh start. We can go wherever your heart desires. Colorado, California, Montana. Anyplace you say."
Her jaw sagged but she couldn't formulate a sentence when her mind was whirling like a cyclone. He wanted her to elope with him? Leave the territory abruptly? Why?
Tony never spoke much about his past and now she wondered why. Was he a wanted man? Was the law about to catch up with him? Did he feel the desperate need to run for his life?
She knew that Judge Isaac Parker in Fort Smith had sent out several dozen Deputy U.S. Marshals to apprehend outlaws that fled into the territory in hopes of outrunning their crimes. Had someone recognized Tony from a Wanted poster and turned him in?
"Lori? Sweetheart?" Tony squeezed her hand. "Will you do me the honor of marrying me? We can be off tonight so we can begin our new life together and leave this place far behind."
Lori pulled Tony to his feet. "Why do you want to leave the territory in such a rush?" she questioned intently.
Tony glanced this way and that, provoking more questions she wanted answered. "I hadn't meant to fall in love with you, Lori, but it just happened. You fascinate me. I want you to come with me. We can leave tonight. Right now. I have money saved up for our trip."
He certainly avoided her questions, leaving her to suspect that he was a fugitive of justice. Her concern escalated when he kept glancing every which way, as if he anticipated trouble.
"Will you?" he persisted. "I promise I'll take good care of you, Lori."
Lori didn't need a man to take care of her. Her father had spent years ensuring his only surviving child could handle herself with a pistol, rifle and knife and manage several hand-to-hand combat maneuvers. She'd perfected those skills while dealing with several unsavory characters that stopped at the trading post and used the ferry that transported passengers, wagons, stagecoaches and horses across the river.
"I'm sorry, Tony," she said as gently as she knew how. "You are a dear friend and you know I treasure your companionship. But"
"But you don't feel the same way I do," he interrupted in disappointment. His broad shoulders slumped but he nodded acceptance. "You can't blame a man for asking. I know I'm not your first proposal."
"None of them have been as flattering and tempting as yours," she replied honestly.
"At least I have that. I'll miss you like crazy, sweetheart."
When he eased closer to kiss her goodbye Lori sincerely wished she could feel something besides a lukewarm reaction to his embrace. Nevertheless, her heart knew what it felt and there was no convincing it otherwise. She tried to be honest, especially with herself. She couldn't give Tony what he wanted. She refused to consider marriage until she discovered that unique feeling her father claimed he had shared with her mother, even years after she and her young son had succumbed to diphtheria.
Her wandering thoughts broke off and she snapped to attention when she heard a crackling of twigs in the underbrush. Heavy shadows enveloped the trees, concealing whoever or whatever lurked in the near distance. Tony muttered a curse when a gunshot rang out in the gathering darkness. Lori heard a bullet whistle past her head before it plugged into a tree beside them. She tried to object when Tony tucked her protectively behind him. She tugged on his arm to bustle both of them behind a tree for protection, but another gunshot erupted before they reached cover.
She knew the instant the bullet found its mark. Tony staggered against her, gasping for breath. When another shot ripped through the trees, Lori grabbed one of the pistols in Tony's double holster and returned fire. She heard the thrashing in the underbrush and thud of horses' hooves. But her focus was on Tony, who crumpled to the ground.
"Sweet mercy," she whispered when she saw the bloodstains spreading quickly across the left side of Tony's shirt.
She dropped to her knees beside him when he lifted his hand to her.
"I'm sorry," he gasped. "I didn't mean to drag you into this. But I do love you. Now run! Get out of here before it's too late."
His apology baffled her. Why did she need to escape? Was she considered guilty by association? Escape from whom? Who was after him? A bounty hunter who had discovered Anthony Rogers's true identity and tracked him down? What had Tony done that earned him a bushwhacking?
"Go now " He panted for breath as he clutched his chest.
"No, I want to help you," she insisted, using his kerchief to stem the flow of blood oozing from his wound.
Almost frantic now, Tony shoved at her hands, but she could tell he was losing strength with each passing second.
"Go, damn it. Get out of here! If you care anything about me at all, you'll do as I say and flee for your own safety!"
Stumbling to her feet, Lori looked around, wondering if Maggie Burgess, the widowed owner of the station and ranch or one of the hired hands had heard the shots. Where was the help Tony desperately needed?
A moment later, she saw Maggie appear from the corner of the station where stagecoach travelers took their meals.
"Over here!" Lori yelled. "We need help!"
Maggie clutched the front of her skirts and raced across the lawn toward the copse of trees.
"Damn it, get out of here!" Tony mumbled weakly. "Please, sweetheart. It's the last thing I'll ever ask of you. Go "
When his lashes fluttered shut and he sagged lifelessly on the ground Lori backed up four paces. Frantic, confused and uncertain where the sniper lurked, she wheeled toward her horse, Tony's pistol still clutched in her fist.
"Oh, my God!" Maggie Burgess wailed as she raced toward Tony's unmoving form. She glared at the gun in Lori's hand and then at Tony. "You killed him! Why? Because you chased after him and he wanted nothing to do with you? You little tramp!"
"I didn't kill him," Lori protested as she scanned the darkness, in case the killer was waiting to dispose of all of them. "We need to take cover before more shots are fired."
"You're a liar!" the brunette railed as she dropped down beside Tony. "Now what am I to do? I've lost my husband and now you've murdered my foreman. Who will help me run my business? How will I survive?"
When Maggie grabbed the spare pistol, Lori was certain the grief-crazed widow intended to shoot her for the crime she falsely presumed Lori had committed. As Maggie clutched the pistol in both hands and raised it to fire, Lori darted behind the nearest tree. The shot zinged past her, compelling her to run for her life.
"Whore!" Maggie screeched, then fired off another shot. "Murderess! Sonny! Teddy! Come quickly. The killer is trying to get away! Hurry!"
Lori sprinted toward her horse, grateful she was wearing her usual attire of breeches and shirt so she could move swiftly and agilely.
On her best days, Lori couldn't compete with Maggie Burgess's stylish clothing. But then, Maggie didn't have to vault onto a horse and race into the night to avoid capture.
"What happened, Mizz Burgess?"
Lori glanced back to see the silhouettes of Sonny Hathaway and Teddy Collins, two of the hired hands, racing uphill toward Maggie.
"Lorelei Russell just killed Tony!" Maggie wailed. "Stop her before she circles back to the trading post to seek her father's protection!"
Maggie's command sealed Lori's escape route, forcing her to ride toward the wild tumble of timbered hills so she wouldn't drag her father into this horrible misunderstanding. She hoped when Maggie had time to calm down and review the situation she'd realize that Lori hadn't fired the fatal shot.
Lori nudged Drifter in the flanks and he took off like a shot, zigzagging through the trees to put more distance between her and the two hired hands sent to pursue her.
She swore she could still hear Maggie screeching like a banshee, but Lori didn't look back. She held on to the saddle horn and curled over Drifter's neck to make certain a low-hanging tree limb didn't knock her off the galloping horse.
She allowed herself to spill the tears that had clouded her eyes when she'd realized Tony was beyond help. Now she could cry for her lost friend and curse herself for rejecting his marriage proposal. It broke her heart, knowing Tony had offered his love and she'd turned him downthe moment before the fatal gunshot ended his life at the young age of thirty.
In addition, Maggie Burgess was so beside herself with grief and fury that she'd shot at Lori. She felt sorry for the young widow who was only six or seven years older than Lori.
Maggie had married Hubert Burgess who was sixteen years her senior. Two months ago, Hub's horse had bucked him off while he was chasing cattle rustlers and he'd died instantly. Maggie had yet to recover from her anguish, and now someone had shot and killed her ranch foreman, leaving her grief-stricken, desperate and feeling abandoned and overwhelmed.
Lori's thoughts scattered in the wind when she heard the thunder of hoofbeats behind her. The report of a rifle shattered the silence. Lori plastered herself against Drifter's neck and urged the gelding into his fastest pace as he scrambled uphill. The flare from a discharging rifle caught her attention and she frowned, bemused. The shot came from the west, not the south where Sonny and Teddy rode in hot pursuit.
Was the bushwhacker who had killed Tony after her, too? A cold chill slithered down her spine when she remembered Tony had stepped in front of her like a shield to take the fatal shot. By all rights, she should be dead right now. She would have been the innocent victim struck by the killer's careless shot in the darkness. Whatever Tony had done in his past to draw gunfire, he'd committed a selfless act. He didn't deserve to die! she thought remorsefully.
Lori muffled a sniff and tried to block out the awful scene that kept replaying itself in her mind. She couldn't allow herself to be distracted while racing to safety with two hired hands chasing her, as well as the sniper, who evidently had circled to the west to shoot at her.
Guided by the light of the moon, Lori headed toward the wild, broken Osage Hills where deep gulches and rock-and-timber hilltops offered protection. She cringed, knowing the grief-stricken widow and the hired hands believed the worst about her. They planned to take the law into their own hands to see her pay for a crime she didn't commit.
Glancing uneasily around her, she held on as Drifter scrabbled uphill, weaving his way around oversize boulders and trees. She knew bears and panthers roamed the area, not to mention vagabond outlaws. Not counting the two-man posse and the mysterious sniper who had killed Tony.
She squeezed her eyes shut and choked on a sob. She hoped that wherever Anthony Rogers wasand no matter what he'd done in his secretive pasthe could hear her silent apology and he'd forgive her for turning him down. The thought of never seeing Tony again tormented her to no end, especially when she'd sent him off to the Hereafter with her rejection echoing around him.
Five days later